Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 1998)

New and recent books about the Caribbean


One Bright Child

Patricia Cumper (BlackAmber Books, UK, 1998: ISBN 1901969002)

This is the first title from a new publisher promising to find “the best of Black British literature”. BlackAmber’s debut novelist, Patricia Cumper, is a Jamaican who is making a name for herself in London as a dramatist — she is a scriptwriter for the BBC World Service soap Westway, and One Bright Child was previously a serial on BBC domestic radio in England. The novel is based on the true story of the author’s mother, Gloria, who was sent away from Jamaica to school in England during the 1930s, and went back there to read law at Cambridge in the 40s, eventually returning to Jamaica with an English economist for a husband. The scenes in which the two meet and marry are beautifully done and very funny; the later scenes, in which the pressures of post-war England and a mixed marriage almost tear them apart, are the more poignant for being drawn without self-pity. This is an entertaining and touching story, presented economically and simply. The lonely world in which young Gloria has to survive and grow strong — with its family and academic pressures, its subtle and not-so-subtle racism and sexism, but also the warmth of unexpected friendships and Caribbean solidarity — will touch a chord in generations of West Indians.


Why Workers Won’t Work: The Worker In A Developing Economy: A Case Study of Jamaica

Kenneth L. Carter (Macmillan Caribbean, UK, 1997: ISBN 0-333-67989-X)

Why won’t workers work? Because they’re combative, lethargic, strike-prone and over-unionised, Jamaican employers will tell you. This book has a different story: it’s because they’re fed up. Demotivated, alienated, unrecognised and unappreciated. They have little confidence in management, and no sense of a stake in the enterprises they supposedly work for. Carter — Tutor at the School of Continuing Studies at the Jamaican campus of the University of the West Indies — claims that an alarming 76%  of his sample of 10,877 could be described as “demotivated”, including 22% who are “organizational vegetables, not retrievable”. He puts the responsibility for change squarely on managers: if the early bird catches the worm, Carter asks, what worm is going to turn out of bed with enthusiasm to be picked off by managerial birds? He sees underproduction, strikes and passive behaviour as “rational, authentic and positive behaviour, and therefore change-resistant”. He tells of being enraged one night by a deranged dread noisily pulling a ten-metre cow-chain up and down the road while he was trying to finish an urgent report; he remonstrated, and was firmly rebuked as a “mad pinehead r**s” — what did he want man to do, push it? From which Carter deduces that it is pointless merely attacking a man’s behaviour: you have to get to the thought process that causes the behaviour in the first place. Managers, he implies, have to get beyond self-righteous remonstration and find out why labour is so demotivated if they want solutions. The writing veers between the wearying jargon of sociology and management (which besets any work with aspirations to academic seriousness these days) and compelling outbreaks of plain speaking and common sense. But they both tell the same story.

Behind The Bridge: Poverty, Politics And Patronage In Laventille, Trinidad

Selwyn Ryan, Roy McCree, Godfrey St Bernard (Institute of Social and Economic Research, UWI, Trinidad, 1997: ISBN 976 618 028 8)

Laventille is the suburb that stretches up the steep hills on the eastern side of the Trinidad and Tobago capital, Port of Spain; significantly perhaps, it has just as good a view over the city and the Gulf as the much more affluent suburbs to the north and west. To middle-class Trinidad, Laventille spells poverty, crime, ghetto, violence and threat, romanticised at Carnival time by the presence of the legendary Desperadoes steel orchestra. This study was sparked by the controversial comments of Dr Morgan Job, then a talk show host and columnist (now Minister for Tobago Affairs), who characterised Laventille as a community that deliberately chose dependence and irresponsibility over self-help and self-esteem. The study asks: what makes people poor, and what keeps them poor? Is it their own fault, as Margaret Thatcher maintained? Are people impoverished by prevailing economic systems, by systematic dispossession, or by their own cultural assumptions and perceptions? The questions apply far beyond Port of Spain. The six academic contributors to this book plough through many corners of Laventille in their search for answers, throwing up mountains of sociological data as they go. But there are not many surprises. The last sentence of the text reads: “All of this however requires further research.”


They Called Us Brigands: The Saga of St Lucia’s Freedom Fighters

Robert J. Devaux (Optimum Printers, St Lucia, 1997: ISBN 976-8056-62-2)

The guide books tell you plenty about the epic colonial struggles over St Lucia, Admiral Rodney and the Battle of the Saints and all that; they urge you to discover the old military fortifications on Pigeon Island and Morne Fortuné. Historian Robert Devaux would have you take more interest in places that are much harder to find but much closer to the island’s heart: the network of rock shelters, tunnels and caves, camps and lookouts, used by St Lucia’s “Brigands”, the equivalent of Jamaica’s Maroons. For a short time at the end of the 18th century, these ex-slaves virtually controlled St Lucia. Slaves had been escaping from the plantations and the colonial military into St Lucia’s mountains and forests for decades. The French Revolution, the freeing of French slaves, the island’s capture by the British and the swift re-imposition of slavery, the provocations of the French republican Victor Hugues — all this led to a showdown between the “Brigands” and the British, months of guerrilla warfare that ended with a truce in November 1797 and the shipping of the “Brigand” leaders to Sierra Leone. Devaux’s purpose is to rescue these forest fighters from the “bad-guy” tag of colonial-flavoured history books and reposition them as real freedom fighters, telling the story at last from their point of view. That such a task should be necessary, let alone controversial, two centuries later, is remarkable; even more so is the data Devaux has unearthed about the way they lived and fought — he documents over 100 sites that he has personally explored, and adds an extensive list of St Lucian place names and creole terms associated with the “Brigands”. The book is a useful corrective to received perceptions and deserves to be widely read — but it also deserved more careful editing and proofing, and a crucial page on the Battle of Rabot is missing from our review copy.

General History Of The Caribbean: Volume III — The Slave Societies Of The Caribbean

ed. Franklin W. Knight (UNESCO Publishing/Macmillan Caribbean 1997: ISBN 92-3-103146-5)

It has taken the best part of two decades to get UNESCO’s magisterial six-volume Caribbean history on the road. Volume III seems to be the first of the six to appear, and covers the most-trodden areas of the region’s past — the period of slavery. Not exactly a light read, this is an exhaustive, comprehensive, 400-page paperback that tackles the subject thematically rather than chronologically. In individual chapters, taking a regional view as far as possible, Professor Knight’s team of high-powered academics moves systematically through demographics, economics, social structure, maroon communities, social and political control, slave resistance, culture, religion and the disintegration of Caribbean slave systems. Oddly, for a project that is supposed to view Caribbean history from the inside rather than from the outside (“as if from the ports and capitals of European colonizers,” as Sir Roy Augier’s introduction puts it), only three of the 11 contributors are Caribbean historians, and only one of those (Professor Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies in Barbados) actually works in the Caribbean. The other volumes in the series will cover everything from the first settlers to the late 20th century, with a whole volume reserved for methodology and historiography; Volume III is studiously silent about when these might appear.


The Debt Dilemma

Horace A. Bartilow (Macmillan/Warwick University Caribbean Studies, 1997: ISBN 0-333-67990-3)

Since the 1970s, the long shadow of the International Monetary Fund has fallen heavily on many of the Caribbean’s small economies. Enmeshed in the developing world’s debt crisis, heavily dependent on single-commodity exports and on a dizzying range of imports, governments in dire need of capital infusion found themselves locked in complex and bewildering negotiations over “conditionalities”. This usually meant a partial surrender of sovereignty to an institution that behaved like a grim global schoolmaster: price controls, devaluations, wage freezes, spending limits, tax increases, divestment, interest rate hikes, trade liberalisation —  it was bitter medicine. But if you did not take it, you were put in detention by the unrelenting schoolmaster. Take it or starve. For many regional ministers, it was a sharp and painful learning experience, made even harder as their already small geo-political leverage (the Cuba card, etc.) drained away with the fading of the Cold War. Dr Bartilow’s thoroughly researched and well argued study focuses on the delicate art of negotiation, taking as case studies Jamaica (under both Manley and Seaga), Grenada (under Maurice Bishop and the PRG) and Guyana (under Burnham). How the game was played makes an often fascinating story. Among other things, Dr Bartilow — a political scientist at the University of Kentucky — shows how IMF objectives were sometimes quite different from the US government’s. Pragmatism counted for more than ideology — especially in Grenada, where the IMF was more interested in working with Bishop than indulging Ronald Reagan’s obsession with those meddling Cubans. Some useful insights here, by no means irrelevant to the late 1990s.